The rise of basketball in Canada has been a remarkable thing, and it may have been something that nobody could have saw coming, but one man was able to connect the Canadian fans and basketball in unison- Kawhi Leonard.
One person that was particularly skeptical of the country taking in basketball was the coach of the women’s national side between 2002 and 2012, Allison McNeill. She recalled how on one instance, she had to beg for a bartender to change the television in Vancouver so that they could watch the basketball coverage. It’s fair to say that they had no such problems during the Raptors run to NBA glory this year.
Better than that, the country was so engaged with what was happening on the court that the golf club where her husband played were no longer engrossed by the Stanley Cup, but instead, every television was glued to the action in the basketball post-season.
Impact In Vancouver
The revolution that began in Toronto with Leonard impressing throughout the season before cementing the Raptors their first-ever NBA finals berth has now travelled across the entire country, and particularly in British Columbia.
Jarrod Dreger, who manages a local downtown sports bar, was quick to allude to the impact that he has seen before Leonard returned for a pre-season game with the LA Clippers against the Dallas Mavericks. He said: “Kawhi is a big hero here. Basketball was never too big. When the Raptors went far last year that brought basketball back.”
Basketball, like many other sports, has been a hotbed of talent in British Columbia. However, unlike most other sports, basketball is the fastest-growing sport within the youth. The surge has helped an extensive number of players to reach the NBA, but the Raptors’ success has changed the entire outlook on the sport in the city.
They felt so close to the team following the success that Toronto wasn’t the only place to celebrate, as Vancouver’s Granville Street also had celebrations of their own. The success was seen as a win for the country and not just a success for Toronto.
Dreger reflected on the finals and revealed that his bar has never been standing-only for any Cannucks game despite being only miles away for the rink. However, when the Raptors were playing, his staff failed to serve due to the number of people that came out to support a team that was playing over a thousand miles away.
Michael Wiebe noticed the over-spilling of people, and he decided to do something about it to ensure that everybody could catch the action. In June, he organized viewing parties but failed to get the clearance that was needed by the local government. However, it has had a positive effect as the discussions are now taking place over how the city can best accommodate big crowds for communal viewing on short notice.
Wiebe acknowledged that ‘there’s an appetite for basketball in Vancouver.’ He also revealed how Leonard’s shot against Philadelphia was something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He claimed: “It is one of those Canadian moments in sports.
Canadians across the country were able to latch onto the Raptors because of the parallels in the diversity on the roster. They believed that it accurately represented not just Toronto, but the whole of the country. However, Leonard was always seen at the figurehead of that, according to McNeill.
She revealed: “He was a bit of an enigma, to be honest, but I think his personality started to come out. People kind of said he has a bit of a Canadian tilt. He is a little understated, a little quiet, and that tends to be us a little bit, as a rule of thumb.”
There was little doubt about the kind of reception that Leonard would receive by those in attendance when he returned to Canada by McNeill. She recalled that while it may sting that he left the Raptors to join the Clippers, the fans in Canada are educated enough to know that he is playing back in the city he will always call home, while also acknowledging that Canada will always be a place where a little bit of his heart will always remain.
She said: “Maybe initially it hurt a bit, but they’re grateful he helped bring a championship and changed the nature of basketball in this country and rejuvenated it. I don’t think it’s going to end any time soon. I think there’s a grassroots swell, and that will continue what Kawhi and the Raptors started.”
The legacy is plain as day for all to see, Leonard, and that Raptors’ side that delivered an iconic moment in the sport’s history will be engrained in the DNA of every basketball fan until the end of time. Parents will tell their children stories about the famous side and how they embedded the game into every Canadian’s soul.